Doak has been globetrotting since his boyhood in New York, when his father took him along to business conferences, often held at golf resorts. Doak says that it was Pete Dye’s Harbor Town Golf Links on Hilton Head Island that made the biggest impression on him. Thereafter, the enterprising young Doak sent letters to golf club managers and superintendents far and wide asking for the opportunity to come and examine their noted golf courses. Golf course architecture was not as en vogue then as it is today, so he was welcomed at otherwise impenetrable American enclaves such as Medinah, Pine Valley, Oakmont and Shinnecock Hills.
After one semester at MIT, he bolted for Cornell University, where, while studying landscape architecture, Doak was allowed to create his own curriculum, which resulted in a scholarship for an unprecedented post-graduate study: a full year wandering the British Isles and studying the shaping of authentic and antique links courses. By the time he was finished gobbling up all the golf he could find, Doak had seen, played and photographed more than 1,000 of the world’s great golf courses and unknown charmers. Along the way, fate had whispered two words in his ear: Crystal Downs.
"A friend of mine told me it was a great, unheralded golf course, so I came to Northern Michigan to see it," says Doak of the now acclaimed Alister MacKenzie design poised on a highland between Crystal Lake and Lake Michigan, in Frankfort. Doak was, by then, working as an assistant with the famed architect Pete Dye, whose work he had so admired at Harbor Town. Meanwhile he had become friendly with Crystal Downs golf professional Fred Muller and managed to make repeated trips to the quiet, scenic club.
Doak’s career took flight, and Traverse City became his permanent home, when, in 1987, Doug Grove, who was then the head professional at Grand Traverse Resort, was helping to develop a piece of ground just southeast of the resort. Grove called Muller to ask whether he knew of any fresh, new golf course architects. Muller recommended Doak and, at age 26, Doak had his first solo design project: High Pointe Golf Club.
"I promised the owners, Hayden Sr. and his son Don Jr., that I would live here during construction of the course and do the shaping on the bulldozer as well as the design, so basically I lived here for two years while High Pointe was built," explains Doak, who received $75,000, plus a $10,000 bonus, for the job. More important, he learned a valuable lesson about wealth, ego and vision that would prove to be the business model for Renaissance Golf Design for years to come.
"High Pointe was not developed because there was demand. It was developed because Mr. Hayden owned a beautiful piece of land, loved golf and always thought it’d be a nice place for a course. He had the money to do it. He looked around and justified that there would be enough demand that he wouldn’t be throwing his money away," said Doak, who says now that more than half of his clients are similarly motivated.